(Child) sex in the city

There are people who buy and sell other people all over the world today. Among the most severe forms of human trafficking is child sex trafficking. And Washington, DC is one of the “hot spots” for this crime.

The extent, causes, approaches to prevention, and recovery of victims were among the many compelling topics addressed by four anti-sex trafficking activists who participated in a panel discussion at George Washington University on October 18. The event was  sponsored by the Global Women’s Forum, part of the Global Gender Initiative of the Elliott School of International Affairs.

anti human trafficking panel
Fighting Sex Trafficking, Four Approached by Local Organizations. Speakers (left to right) Mastrean, Neff, Mathon-Mathieu, Powell, Bertone. Photo taken by Mathilde Bras, exchange student from Sciences Po, Paris.

Panelists included Andrea Powell (co-founder and executive director, FAIR Fund), Faiza Mathon-Mathieu (counsel, Rebecca Project for Human Rights), Erin Neff (assistant project manager, Courtney’s House), and Taryn Mastrean (programs administrator, Shared Hope International). The panel was moderated by Andrea Bertone, visiting assistant professor of international affairs at GW.

Powell launched the discussion by pointing out that when she was first studying “people buying people” in Bonn, Germany, the term “human trafficking” didn’t even exist. When she returned to the US, she thought that the problem wouldn’t be serious. She learned otherwise, and that young people with difficult home situations are at high risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking. With FAIR Fund, she has helped build capacity in communities to identify victims and to make sure that family services are aware of the complex needs of trafficked children. She works with young people directly and has established a preventive education campaign called “Tell Your Friends.” Powell emphasized the gap between the number of children who need help and the lack of places to shelter them.  Services in Belgrade are better than they are in Washington, DC.

Mathon-Mathieu talked about how she and her colleagues at the Rebecca Project are advocating for change, such as a focus on arresting pimps rather than the children being trafficked and getting Craig’s List to close down its advertising section for sex services which, in a coded way, signaled that clients could buy sex with a child. She cited the large number of children in the US who run away from home every year, and how these children are prime targets for traffickers. She urged that greater efforts be made to enforce existing state laws, hold the exploiters accountable, and use child endangerment, rape, and safe harbor laws more effectively.

Erin Neff painted a picture of “pimps as cool” in the US and how that view must change. She reviewed several other aspects of popular culture in the US that seem to allow child sex trafficking to persist such as a belief that prostitution is a “choice.” She pointed out that in the case of children, it cannot be considered a choice. It is rather a system of coercion based on the child’s fear of the pimp and lack of true choices. Courtney’s House is the first group home for girls aged 12-18 in the DC area. The organization also does street outreach and maintains a 24-hour hot-line.

Taryn Mastrean offered an international perspective from Shared Hope. Its goal is to help women and girls who have been trafficked to return home and make a living there. Through a grant from the Department of State, they are doing a comparative study in four countries about what drives the market for commercial sex. They have produced the DEMAND, report and documentary, the first sophisticated study behind sex trafficking and tourism.  In the United States, through a grant from the Department of Justice, they have looked at the situation for trafficked minors and the severe limitation of services.

During the Q&A period, the panelists responded to several questions. One question was about whether or not prostitution should be legalized. Discussion: for adults, it seems, it’s not clearly a good thing with Amsterdam and Sweden providing different results.  No one on the panel supported legalizing sex work for children.

A final topic of discussion was: why is there not more effective law enforcement? Comments included the fact that, in DC, it’s easier to sell a child than to sell drugs, and the punishment, if you are caught, is less harsh if you are selling a child. The shortage of staffing, training and capacity were mentioned as well as the variation in laws in DC, Virginia, and Maryland. Child and Family Services was dubbed a “mixed bag” in terms of being able to provide shelter for trafficked children, and the Juvenile Justice System was tarred as “further trauma” to victims.

The resounding message from the panel was that trafficked kids are not “bad kids.” Instead, they are victims of poverty and despair in their homes and neighborhoods. Once they are on “the track” (working for their pimps), they are victims once again, selling sex to random strangers multiple times a day to avoid abuse by their pimp. If they manage to get off the track, they find very little in the way of support in “mainstream society” to help them build a better life.

Blogger’s note: My deep thanks to the four panelists and their organizations. They are working hard and well on many fronts.

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